I am thrilled today to publish an interview with Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist at Brown University. Jackie approached me recently hoping to talk through issues around social media and mental health. Of all the fraught topics for those of us with older kids, this felt like a huge one. So I was very happy to not only do this interview but use it in my own parenting. Already, it sparked a really good conversation with my 10-year-old about how we’ll think about privacy when she gets her own phone.
As is my tendency, this interview is long. But worth it! Grab a minute and a cup of tea, and dig in (though if you’re mainly just looking for advice, you can skip to the end). Thank you, Jackie!
I’m a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University. I study the effects of social media on mental health and how parents can help their kids use technology in healthier ways. I’m also a therapist who specializes in work with adolescents (i.e. preteens and teens) and their families. And I write a weekly newsletter called Techno Sapiens, about technology, psychology, and parenting.
As both a scientist and a mom, I think these are some of the most important (and confusing!) issues we face as parents. There are many misconceptions and scary headlines out there. It’s tempting to want to somehow hide all electronic devices from our kids until they turn 18 — or, alternatively, to throw up our hands and just let them use social media whenever and however they want. But in the decade I’ve been doing this work, I’ve learned a lot about how we can take a more balanced approach to our kids’ tech use.
This research is really hard to do; we can’t time-travel back to an ancient era (i.e. before Facebook) and randomly assign some teens to use social media and some teens not to. Instead, what we have are studies with inconsistent results, many of which have significant limitations. Historically, one of the main limitations of these studies was a focus on self-reported “screen time.” This is problematic because (1) it does not capture what kids are actually doing on social media, (2) it does not capture what kids could be doing instead of using social media, and (3) it is generally not accurate (teens — and adults — are very bad at estimating how much time they’ve spent on their phones). The research on social media is progressing — studies are now starting to incorporate more advanced measures and methods — but we still don’t have all the answers.
Taken together, the current research does not support the idea that social media is causing mental health problems on a large scale. But this doesn’t mean that social media doesn’t matter for teens’ mental health and well-being. It just means that the effects of social media, both good and bad, depend a lot on how it’s being used and on the individual person who is using it.
So, traditionally, many studies would do something like this: ask a big group of teens how often they use social media and, at the same time, ask about their symptoms of, say, depression. Then they’d look at the association between those two variables. There are a number of problems here, including biases in self-reporting, an inability to establish causality, ignoring individual differences, etc. Recent studies are improving on these issues.We’re seeing, for example, more experimental methods (which look at short-term changes in behavior, emotions, or brain functioning), advanced statistics that tease apart person-specific effects (i.e. how social media is affecting individual teens differently), and measures of objective behavior (e.g. by looking at a teen’s actual social media history and analyzing it with machine learning).
Here’s a fascinating study that incorporates some of these methods. Researchers recruited a group of over 600 ninth-graders to use a simulated social media site designed for the study. Teens were randomly assigned to receive few or many “likes” on their profiles. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who received few likes (vs. many) reported feeling more rejected immediately afterward. Then the researchers followed a subset of teens from the “few likes” group over the course of eight months. The teens who had responded more negatively to receiving few likes were more likely to develop depression over time. The takeaway: for teens who are more sensitive to social rejection, certain social media experiences can have a negative effect on mental health. These findings are important, and, as you can see, offer a much more nuanced conclusion than “social media is ruining our kids.”
Second, as humans, we want simple explanations. We want soundbites that fit into, say, 280 characters, and most of the time, science doesn’t work that way. Media coverage is often driven by clicks, and we’re much more likely to click a simple, alarmist headline about social media (“How TikTok Is Melting Your Teen’s Brain”) than one presenting a more balanced view. And to be fair, there are studies showing negative effects of social media, so those are the ones we’re seeing.
Third, I do think there’s some fear of new things. New technologies generally cause some amount of societal panic; this has happened with everything from the printing press to bicycles to TV. I will say, though, I don’t think the takeaway should then be “social media is no big deal.” I think it’s actually that social media is a very big deal — it is totally different from anything we’ve seen before — we just need to approach it with a recognition of both the risks and benefits.
Social media has a number of features that make it fundamentally different from traditional, in-person experiences. For example, it’s more public. In the offline world, teens generally do not have the ability to reach thousands (or millions) of people instantly. It’s also more accessible. Teens can access friends (and strangers) at any time of day, from any location. It’s more permanent; the things teens say and share don’t ever really go away. And it’s more quantifiable. There are numerical status metrics (likes, shares) on everything they do and see. These features come together to make social media a really unique context, different from what we’ve seen before. It creates some amazing opportunities teens might not have offline (e.g. connecting with others who share their interests or identities), but it also creates an environment that can be very challenging for teens — and adults! — to navigate.
So if we take from this that the impact of social media varies across kids and could be bad, but may not be, where does that leave us as parents? I think a first question I’d ask is whether there is any data that would help me think about whether my child is likely to be negatively affected?
Okay, so which kids are more likely to be negatively affected by social media? The short answer is that kids who are struggling offline are more likely to be the ones to struggle online. Let’s think about this in categories: social, behavioral, and emotional.
Socially, teens who are struggling — whether that’s getting bullied, being left out or excluded, getting sucked into social “drama” — tend to see more negative effects with social media. The vast majority of kids who are getting bullied on social media are also getting bullied in person. The problem is that, on social media, bullying can be constant, more difficult to escape, more public. So social media may exacerbate the problem for these kids.
Behaviorally, teens who are taking more risks offline, engaging in unsafe behaviors, getting into trouble: these are going to be kids who are more likely to find themselves in risky situations online, like posting photos of drinking alcohol, for example.
Teens who are having emotional difficulties are also more likely to struggle on social media. This includes teens who are particularly invested — even more so than the average teen — in what other kids think of them, or in what they look like in photos or how they “stack up” to their peers. Compared with boys, girls tend to be more highly invested in their social media use, and many studies do show more negative effects for girls. I’d also include in this category teens who are struggling with their mental health. One nationally representative survey, for example, finds that teens with depressive symptoms (vs. teens without) are more likely to say they often compare themselves negatively to others online.
Now, the challenge is that many studies show that those teens who struggle on social media are also more likely to report taking advantage of its benefits: getting support, finding a community, expressing themselves, etc. In that same nationally representative survey, teens with depressive symptoms (vs. teens without) were more likely to say that social media was “very important” for them to feel less alone.
The takeaway: the vast majority of kids are going to run into both good and bad things on social media, though some may be predisposed to encounter more of the bad. The solution, then, is probably not going to be banning social media use altogether among those vulnerable kids. It’s going to need to be a more complicated mix of trying to maximize the benefits for them while minimizing the risks.
So, let’s take this in three parts. First, some basic tech parenting principles. Second, how to effectively set guardrails. Third, what to do to set guardrails.
There are a few basic principles to good tech parenting, which align nicely with what you lay out in The Family Firm.
- Tech parenting is mostly just … parenting. We get intimidated by social media and smartphones, and, like we’ve discussed, there are unique challenges here. But at the end of the day, the same basic parenting principles you’ve always known, apply (in other words, you’ve got this!).
- You are the expert on your kid. I’ll give some research-backed ideas here, but you know best what will work for your kid.
- In line with your “following up” idea, no decisions are final. You can always make changes. Set up trial periods, e.g. you’ll let your kid download Snapchat, and you’ll put certain rules in place around it. In two weeks, or a month, you’ll revisit it with them — what’s working? What do you need to adjust?
Next, before we get into what guardrails you might set up, let’s talk about how to do this. One framework that can be helpful here, as in much of parenting teens, is thinking about how to balance protecting your kid’s safety with fostering their independence. We need to have some guardrails, but we also need plenty of green space in between those guardrails for kids to experiment, learn, and develop.
Striking this balance is tricky, but there are a few strategies that can help.
- Emphasize open communication. Ask your kid questions. Listen to their answers. Explain the rationale behind any limits you’re putting in place.
- Engage your child in the process. If you’re at the first-phone stage, both you and your child can independently come up with a few key guardrails and then discuss — many parents are surprised that their kids are stricter than they themselves were planning to be.
- When you do set limits, be consistent. Your kid may not agree with your decisions, but they need to know that those decisions are predictable. Before your kid gets a phone is a great time to set rules and expectations, knowing you can always loosen them later. One thing that can be helpful is coming up with a family phone-use plan (and even putting it in writing).
- Lead with warmth and validation, expressing to your kid that how they’re feeling is understandable [more about this here].
Now, on to what to do. Here are a few guardrails and ideas you might consider.
- Wait to get your kid a phone until you think the benefits for them (i.e. socially, logistically) outweigh the risks. For context, most kids (nearly 70%) have a phone by age 12. If you suspect your kid might struggle (see above), consider waiting longer or putting stricter limits in place.
- Limits on time. 71% of parents at least sometimes limit when or how long their teen can be on their phone. Kids need time to do non-phone activities and interact in person with family and friends. You can try limits by total minutes/hours (this is hard), by time of day (before school, before bed — this is easier), and by location (in the car, at dinner — this is easiest).
- Limits on content/activities. Let’s say your kid gets a phone at age 12. This is still young enough that you might lean more heavily on the “protecting safety” side of the balance. You might consider starting out with no social media (only allowing texting), particularly since most social media apps set 13 as their minimum age. You might also set up Family Sharing (for iPhone) or Family Groups (for Android), which allow you to set limits and require approval for any new app downloads.
- Monitoring. Generally, you want to be aware of what your kid is doing on their phone, especially in that 12-to-14 age range. This might involve asking your kid questions or physically checking in on what they’re doing. If the latter, do not spy on them. Talk about the fact that you’ll be doing this and why, or have your kid give you a “tour” of their phone. For context, 72% of parents of 13- and 14-year-olds sometimes look at their teen’s call records or messages. [More about this here.]
- Protect sleep. Open communication is key, but that doesn’t mean everything is negotiable. Sleep is one of those things that’s probably non-negotiable. Current data suggests associations between nighttime phone use and poorer sleep, so consider limiting phone use in the bedroom before bed. A family charging station in a central location in the house — and an alarm clock in your kid’s room — is one solution.
The good news is that you have choices here. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and there’s no data to suggest that checking your kid’s texts is something you need to do. What we do know, from decades of research on parental monitoring, is that kids whose parents are generally more aware of what’s going on in their lives tend to have better outcomes. But that awareness can come from many sources: asking lots of questions, creating an environment where your kid is comfortable disclosing to you, sitting near them while they use their phone, having them give you a tour to show you what they’re up to, or, as we’re discussing, doing some kind of “spot checks” of their phone.
This is one of those things where there are strong — and totally reasonable! — opinions on both sides. Some parents feel strongly that this is a violation of privacy. Others feel that kids need this kind of scaffolding to keep them safe. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle; for many families, occasionally checking what’s happening on your kid’s phone (again, with this being established in advance) can be one component of an effective tech parenting approach.
This is going to depend on your kid. If your kid is pretty responsible, follows the rules, is open with you, comes to you when they have a problem, etc., checking their phone might not be necessary. If your kid tends to take more risks, maybe has a harder time following rules, is struggling emotionally, or tends not to share much, checking their phone might be a better idea. And if you have serious concerns about their health or safety, checking their phone might be necessary. If they’re 11, 12, maybe 13, and just got a phone, this strategy also makes more sense. But if they’re older than that, it starts to be more important to loosen the reins and give them more independence.
Either way, the most important thing is that you’re having ongoing, open conversations with your kid about it.
Here’s how I would approach this conversation. If possible, I’d aim to do it before your kid gets a phone — maybe during your “family phone plan” conversation, after you’ve discussed any limits or rules.
- Show you care: “I love you and I care so much about you.”
- Provide rationale: I’m sure you’re excited to get your phone, and I want you to know I trust you. At the same time, having a phone is a big change. It’s my job as a parent to make sure you’re safe, and part of that is making sure things go well with your phone.
- Frame it as a learning process: Learning to use a phone safely and responsibly takes practice, and I’m here to help you while you’re learning.
- Let them know you’re open to talk: I hope you’ll come talk to me if you run into anything you’re confused or worried about.
- Explain your monitoring plan: One way I’m going to make sure you’re safe is by [occasionally checking what’s happening on your phone] or [having you show me what’s happening on your phone] or [asking you to show/tell me who you’re talking to and what you’re posting], etc.
- Promise not to jump to conclusions: If there’s anything concerning, I promise I’ll come to you first, and we can talk about it before doing anything else.
- Make a plan to re-evaluate: Once we both feel comfortable with how things are going with your phone, we’ll revisit this plan.
- If they say it’s a violation of their trust: I trust you, and I know that you’re going to use your phone in a way that’s responsible. But everyone makes mistakes, and I want to make sure I can help you learn when that happens. There are also some things that are out of your control when you start using a phone (like things people send you, or people who try to message you), and it’s my job to make sure you’re safe.